By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 26) – Brian Burke is famous for a number of things, but silence isn’t among them. That’s why the general manager of the Maple Leafs drew a collective chuckle from reporters in Minneapolis the other day when he offered a decidedly anti-Burke response to his feelings about the Leafs’ schedule for next season. “Ah, the schedule’s fine,” Burke said, followed by an eye-rolling grin that spoke volumes. “There are people at the league who watch these telecasts… so, the schedule’s fine.”
LEAFS GM BRIAN BURKE GOT A CHUCKLE FROM REPORTERS IN THIS SCRUM AT MINNEAPOLIS WHEN HE PRETENDED TO HE HAPPY WITH THE CLUB’S 2011-12 SCHEDULE
As one that isn’t subjected to the NHL’s disciplinary arm – financially, anyway – perhaps I can speak on behalf of the Maple Leafs’ boss: the club’s 2011-12 schedule is a friggin’ disaster. That said, it is neither appropriate nor justifiable to solely pound away at the league for the outcome. All teams are asked by the NHL to submit date preferences long before the final calendar is released. These preferences, of course, are hugely impacted by multi-use facilities (a number of arenas – Air Canada Centre among them – are home to NHL and NBA teams along with multiple varieties of entertainment) as well as coast-to-coast travel. Back in the day – when the league was comprised of six and 12 teams – the schedule was the domain of an individual who had a giant grid in front of him and moved around pieces like one does on a chess board. This hapless soul, as you might imagine, absorbed incalculable abuse from the league’s owners and managers each year. Today, with 30 teams, the schedule is well beyond the capacity of a human being; the variables are fed into a computer which spits out the final version in late-June.
After a busy few days in Minnesota, I finally got a chance to take a detailed look at the Leafs’ sked upon arriving home last night. Having had copious, first-hand experience with the club’s travel pattern since 1994, I’m in a fairly good position to offer a comparative viewpoint. This one is bizarre, as evidenced at the very top. For example, the 2011-12 NHL season opens Thu. Oct. 6. The Leafs do not play a road game until Thu. Oct. 20. That alone isn’t terribly unusual; many U.S. teams in popular football markets (Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Miami) prefer to avoid a bulk of home games during the teeth of the NFL schedule in October and November (of course, we have no guarantee, at this point, of any games being played in the NFL this season). The Leafs have no-such concern and are often accorded a home-heavy slate in the early weeks. Never once, however, in the history of the hockey club, dating to 1926, has it begun a season with five consecutive games on home-ice, as it will this October (the Leafs opened with four matches at home in 1941-42, 1942-43, 1996-97 and 2000-01).
EVEN IN THEIR STANLEY CUP DYNASTY OF THE 1960s, THE MAPLE LEAFS NEVER BEGAN A NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE SEASON WITH FIVE CONSECUTIVE HOME GAMES, AS THEY DO THIS OCTOBER
If that isn’t strange enough, how about the one-week hiatus between Games 2 and 3 on the schedule? That’s right, the Leafs host Ottawa on the first Saturday of the season (Oct. 8), and then don’t play again until Calgary comes to town seven nights later. The first road trip is also kind of wacky, given the Leafs have to hop between countries four separate times. Almost never in the years I’ve covered the team, home and away, has it crossed the border and back on the same trip. Yet, the Leafs begin their road schedule this season at Boston (Oct. 20); come back to play at Montreal (Oct. 22), then go to Philadelphia (Oct. 24) and New York (Oct. 27).
The same thing happens as part of a season-long five-game road trip, Mar. 11-19. Leafs play at Washington (Mar. 11), Florida (Mar. 13) and Tampa (Mar. 15), then fly all the way up to Ottawa for a Saturday-night game (Mar. 17). Before returning home, however, they go to Boston on Mar. 19.
During their years in the Eastern Conference (since 1998-99), the Leafs have almost always played at St. Louis or Nashville as part of a multi-game road trip. This season, they go to each city separately – one week apart (Nov. 10 at the Blues; Nov. 17 at the Predators).
LEAFS VISIT CENTRAL TIME-ZONE CITIES ST. LOUIS (TOP) AND NASHVILLE (BOTTOM) ON THURSDAY NIGHTS, ONE WEEK APART, IN NOVEMBER
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, it was common for the Leafs to play at home on Saturday night and on the road Sunday night. Nowadays, it is almost unheard of. This season, the Leafs do it three times, including twice in that silly rotation of a 7 p.m. start Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday (Washington at home Nov. 19, then at Carolina 22 hours later; Philadelphia at home Mar. 10, then at Washington 5 p.m. on Mar. 11). The first-such instance is more conventional: Leafs host Pittsburgh on Sat. Oct. 29 then play at Ottawa on Sunday at 7:30.
The relatively-late transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg has also played havoc with the Leafs schedule, as the two games originally slated for Philips Arena have simply been re-located to Manitoba – geography and long travel be damned. A logical three-game trip after Christmas had the Leafs going to Florida (Dec. 27), Carolina (Dec. 29) and Atlanta (Dec. 31). Now, the club will travel from Raleigh to Winnipeg for its New Year’s Eve game. The second visit to the Jets (Feb. 7) occurs one night after a home game against Edmonton (consecutive-night encounters are almost never scheduled between cities requiring a two-and-a-half hour flight). Leafs then fly from Winnipeg all the way back to Philadelphia to conclude that two-game-jaunt on Feb. 9.
When the Leafs have played in the state of Florida, they’ve almost always visited Sunrise and Tampa on the same trip. Of course, that isn’t the case in 2011-12. The club will play at Tampa in late-November as part of a long, four-game trek that begins with that 5 p.m. match in Carolina, 22 hours after hosting the Capitals. From Raleigh (Nov. 20), the Leafs go to Tampa (Nov. 22), Dallas (Nov. 25) and Anaheim (Nov. 27). The latter two games are on Friday and Sunday nights, marking the first of two occasions in a three-week span that the club will not be traditionally seen on Saturday night. It happens again when the Leafs visit Washington (Fri. Dec. 9), then do not play until Dec. 13 (home to Carolina).
LEAFS PLAY AT THE AMERICAN AIRLINES CENTER IN DALLAS (TOP) ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25 AND THE HONDA CENTER IN ANAHEIM (BOTTOM) ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 27, MARKING THE FIRST OF TWO OCCASIONS THE CLUB WILL NOT BE SEEN ON ITS TRADITIONAL SATURDAY NIGHT
Consecutive-night games in different cities are the scourge of the schedule and they impact all teams. The Leafs are involved in a phenomenal 17-such occasions next season, including the pair of 7 p.m./5 p.m. starts. As well, Toronto begins its annual journey through western-Canada with Tuesday/Wednesday-night games in Calgary and Edmonton (Feb. 14/15) before a Saturday late-afternoon visit to Vancouver (4 p.m. local, 7 p.m. in the East). Leafs host Carolina on Tue. Feb. 28 and then make a leap-year visit to Chicago the following night (Feb. 29).
All in all, it’s enough to quiet someone as verbose as Brian Burke.